Priority Records' Bryan Turner on Jerry Heller: 'Eazy-E and N.W.A Will Forever Be His Legacy'

AP Photo/Jim Cooper
Jerry Heller photographed in New York's Central Park on  Aug. 14, 2006. 

Now working with directors and writers in the film business, Bryan Turner played an integral role in the emergence of pioneering rap group N.W.A and West Coast rap. He co-founded Los Angeles-based Priority Records, whose roster included N.W.A, Eazy-EIce Cube, Snoop Dogg and Paris, among others. In the following as-told-to, slightly edited for clarity and cohesion, Turner reflects on his relationship during that period with N.W.A manager Jerry Heller, who passed away on Sept. 2 at the age of 75.

Bryan Turner: Jerry had an office in the same building that we were in at Priority: 6430 Sunset Blvd., which is now the CNN building. We had met before; I think it was either through Irving [Azoff] or someone else. We didn’t really have a relationship but we were friendly enough. There was a restaurant downstairs in the building called the Jolly Roger. So I’d see him quite often there. One day, Jerry said, ‘Hey, I have a tape of a group I want you to listen to. He started talking about the group and I said 'give me the cassette.'

I listened and it shocked me as much as I saw ultimately and historically how it shocked everybody else. It was something unique that I’d never heard before in my life. Jerry called me up after and said 'you really have to see them live.' That’s the one part of the movie [Straight Outta Compton] they got right: I went down to Skateland and saw them perform. I didn’t [talk] to them that night at all. I just kind of slipped in, saw them perform and left.

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The “Boyz-n-the-Hood” 12-inch had just come out. It wasn’t readily available and it certainly wasn’t being played on the radio. Yet the 300 kids in that club knew every single lyric. It wasn’t pick up your iPhone and punch in the song. Or even listening to the radio or going to a store to buy it. It wasn’t available. But the kids sought it out. Honestly, I wish I could take the credit for having seen the vision that Jerry saw. But we later made a pretty quick deal, it wasn’t complicated because, lucky me, nobody else was interested in the group. So it was a pretty easy, quick deal. That was how my relationship with Jerry began.

He was very blustery, loud; a screamer a lot of the times. As a matter of fact, Donald Trump reminds me of him… in the way that everything is the best. It’s the biggest, the best; It will do the most you’ve ever seen in your life. That was Jerry. Everything was bigger than life; it was going to be the most anything.

And yet his premonition of being the biggest of the big; I don’t think he knew how it was all going to happen. But we all somehow made it happen. We all created history. The one thing for sure — and nobody can take this away from Jerry — is that he saw Eazy-E and N.W.A. before anybody. That will forever be his legacy.

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But because he was so intractable as a human being and as a businessman, it rubbed people the wrong way a lot of times and generated a lot of controversy. He was steadfast in his old-school ways: You sign artists and they should be so grateful that they have a deal. And I’m not just talking about black artists. He meant all artists. And if lightning strikes for that one in a million, then it will all settle itself out. He believed that’s how things were done. And they were, by the way, before the new generation of which I was a part.

I was 30 years-old and we were all kind of figuring it out. Guys like Dre and Cube were part of this new generation of smart, street-hip artists…  they weren’t buying that. They were saying, 'We want to see what’s going on. We want a fair shake in a deal.' That was a huge conflict because to Jerry that was disrespectful to him. But he never did anything illegal as far as I know.

Then all the rap wars started. Jerry wasn’t going to retract any of that and he wasn’t going to sit down with anybody. And I think that was the big downfall: there was no flexibility with him.

What I remember most about working with Jerry was that every time there was a phone call from him, I knew it would be an awkward and uncomfortable conversation (laughs). The demands were going to be through the roof and I had to control it. On the positive side of the success we had together, there were a lot of congratulatory moments and champagne popping in the office. Jerry wasn’t the easiest guy to deal with, but at the end of the day it was worthwhile. He just did what he was trained to do as an old-school record guy. He never went out of his way to make anyone feel super comfortable. You either agreed with him or you were wrong.

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A couple of years ago, I was walking through a super market in Palm Springs and heard my name. I turned around to see this guy in a sweat suit walking down the aisle and it’s Jerry. We hadn’t left on the best of terms. But we started talking about old times and I took him to task about how he put in his book that I was the one who broke up the group. I took offense to that and explained why. He apologized; I was pretty shocked. At the end of the conversation, he actually tried to hug me. It was so interesting because the last thing I was expecting was that. And I kind of hugged him back. That was the last time I saw and spoke to him. It was very emotional in a very strange way. Because really If not for him, who knows where any of us would be today?